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Gaudio beats Coria for first Slam title
Updated: 2004-06-07 10:01

Unseeded Gaston Gaudio provided an apt ending to two wild weeks at Roland Garros by winning his first Grand Slam title, coming from way down to upset a cramping Guillermo Coria 0-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1, 8-6 Sunday in a back-and-forth thriller.

Even one point from defeat, Gaudio just kept telling himself to enjoy the moment, to cherish the chance to play in a French Open final.

If he could get through years of struggle, of borrowing money to travel to tournaments, of losing more big matches than he won, then certainly he could conquer this obstacle, too. At least that's what his psychologist had said.

Gaston Gaudio of Argentina returns a volley during the men's final of the French Open tennis tournament against his compatriot Guillermo Coria at Roland Garros stadium in Paris, June 6, 2004. [Reuters]

Gaudio is the first man in 70 years to win a French Open final after facing match point, saving two when Coria served for the championship at 6-5 in the last set.

"I don't know how, but I won," said Gaudio, who's ranked No 44, the fourth-lowest for a major champion. "Until now, I never believed that I can win a Grand Slam. Until the last point, I was not even thinking that I'm going to win this tournament."

The first all-Argentine major final was guaranteed to produce the country's first Slam champion since Guillermo Vilas in 1979, but that was about the only given in a 3 1/2-hour match that veered in so many directions.

Here's how close it was: Gaudio had one more unforced error (55-54) and two fewer winners (36-38); each player was broken 11 times.

But it didn't start that way. Through 2 1/2 sets, the third-seeded Coria played superbly, Gaudio terribly, and 15,639 spectators were fed up.

Fans began applauding Coria's mistakes, a breach of tennis etiquette but perfectly understandable, given the lackluster play over the previous few days, including Anastasia Myskina's 6-1, 6-2 victory over Elena Dementieva in an all-Russian women's final Saturday.

And during a changeover with Coria ahead 4-3 in the third set, just two games from victory, the crowd did the wave, trying to will Gaudio to play better.

The players trotted out, ready to resume, but the fans wouldn't quit, delaying action more than a minute. Soaking it all in, Gaudio set the ball and his racket on the court and clapped. The fans gave Gaudio exactly what he needed: escape.

"They support me so hard when I was playing so bad. With that, maybe I start to move on," said Gaudio, who enlisted a psychologist about a year ago when he was particularly down on himself after a Davis Cup loss.

"I was almost done. I was too nervous. From that moment, I started to enjoy the match more and be relaxed and play my tennis."

After winning points, which he suddenly did with frequency, Gaudio would turn to the crowd and raise his arms in a V, or gesture for more cheering. He closed that set in three straight games.

The match's complexion changed yet again at 1-1 in the fourth, when Coria needed his cramping left calf massaged. He struggled to get out of his chair and he simply couldn't move on court. Coria served standing straight, tapping balls at 50 mph instead of 115 mph, but he never considered quitting.

For the next 20 minutes, no one knew how to behave. Not Coria, who just tried to hang in, gingerly stepping around as if barefoot on a beach's hot sand. Not Gaudio, who went back into a shell and managed to lose points against an opponent unable to run. Not the fans, who sat in silence for long stretches.

"I've never seen anything like that in a tennis match," said Vilas, who sat in the second row of the VIP section and presented Gaudio with the champion's trophy. "I didn't move from my seat once."

In the fifth set, Coria's fighting spirit returned and, helped by two double-faults, he broke Gaudio in the first game. At breaks, Coria stood, chomping on bananas and guzzling water. After the match, he teared up while talking about not using dietary supplements (which can help avoid cramping) because he served a seventh-month drug suspension in 2001-02.

When Gaudio pushed a forehand wide to let Coria break to 5-4, chants of "Gow-dee-o!" and "Coh-ree-ah!" echoed through the stadium like an operatic fugue. Fans, it seemed, didn't know who to sympathize with more: Coria for his physical problems or Gaudio for his mental blocks.

At 6-5, Coria wasted his match points by missing a backhand, then a forehand. A long backhand made it 6-all. When Gaudio held for 7-6, he jogged to his chair laughing, perhaps incredulous he was four points from a Grand Slam title.

Gaudio then broke Coria, finishing with a flourish: a cross-court backhand winner. The champion tossed his racket 15 feet in the air, and it landed in the stands. The players met at the net for a handshake and hug, and Coria tapped the bill of Gaudio's hat — no sign of the rancor from a 2003 match when Gaudio accused Coria of gamesmanship.

Coria then smashed his racket twice and slumped in his seat, while Gaudio walked around the perimeter of the court, slapping palms with spectators, flecks of rust-colored clay dotting his white hat and shirt.

Coria, who had won 37 of 38 clay matches, the only loss against No. 1 Roger Federer, called Sunday "an enormous disappointment."

Gaudio came to Roland Garros with a 1-9 career record in matches that went five sets; he won three in the past two weeks. He arrived with a 15-20 career mark in Grand Slams, never going beyond the fourth round. He hadn't won any tournament since 2002.

Now he's the 11th first-time Slam champion in the past 16 years at the anyone-can-be-a-star French Open.

"Maybe, from now on," Gaudio said, "I'm going to believe in myself more."

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